Sásá ha’ a nalo ó batar la fulin, kôlelemai. (Why does your corn not grow?)
Sásá ha’ a nalo ó hare la burit, kôlelemai. (Why doesn’t your rice sprout?)
Se se ha’ a nalo ó kabun la bosu, kôlelemai. (Who causes your empty stomachs?)
Se se ha’ a nalo ó kosar la maran, kôlelemai. (Who causes your never ending sweat?)
Kolêlelemairadekokodelê, kôlelemai. (Who is responsible? Who is to blame?)
Kolêlelemairadekokodelê. (Who is responsible?)
Kôle hele laloikôlelemai. (Who is to blame?)
I knew I was in trouble when the simulation exercise began. I was completing pre-departure training for my home country’s international aid program. My assignment was in the small half isle nation of Timor-Leste, nestled in between Australia and Indonesia. The participants were of all ages and professions, though many had little to no experience in community development. Much of the training involved preparing us for the rigors of “the field”. The impact it may have on our health, safety and wellbeing. But what of the impact of us on the communities we were about to enter? Were our host organisations receiving pre-arrival training preparing them for the impact of a foreign expat in their midst?
On day three, an exercise in cross cultural competency involved small groups being given “challenging” cultural situations to roleplay. Complete with props. Plenty of Muslim woman “scarfy things”. The next hour involved standing around in a circle of mainly white people, watching them imitate brown people. Brown people broken English. Brown people behavioural mysteries.
On the edge of this theatrical circle, I watched as laughing soon-to-be expats attempted to “solve” difficult cross-cultural situations. It was the first time I had considered what it would mean to be a woman of colour entering the development sector.
“My Mana was late this morning again and when I asked her why she did that Timorese thing. You know where they have a blank face?”
“This country would go so far if they just weren’t so bloody lazy.”
Tinkling laughter. Beads of condensation rolling down the Bintang bottle. Any discomfort dissolved in the in-joke. The camaraderie from ridiculing the chaos of the Other. In these moments I melt like the beads on those Bintang bottles. I once heard the poor and the marginalised described as the “cricket people”. Thin and angular from their poverty, plentiful and yet insignificant. Ascribed to the landscape, a homogenous regular fixture. The body without the mind. Invisible. In these moments, the cells in my body that belonged to my great grandmother spark up as an ancient memory stirs. These are words my cells have known at some other time in some other body. These are the British Raj conversations of humid Sunday afternoons in Punjab. A cricket person serving them tea. A cricket person fanning them as they watch a game of cricket.
Despite the laughter in the safety of the pre-departure training, it turns out that those brown people we imitated inside that circle had a mind and a body. The film of trauma in a female colleague’s pupils that are somewhere else when they are late to work because a sick child and an elderly parent needed care arranged. The woman without the Land Cruiser having to hurtle through the traffic to get to work in time is instead at the mercy of the number 10 microlet. For all the safety, security and health preparation for the field, the one thing we are totally unprepared for is power. And how much we have of it.
For an intensely intercultural exercise, the aid and development industry almost never talks about race. It is the black and brown elephant in the room. Lumbering around and looming large, but made entirely invisible by the terms and conditions of International Development Inc. A recent article on the Guardian’s Development Professionals Network discussing the term “expat” points to the way in which privilege works in the current globalisation of travel and work. Turning this critical eye on those of us who work in aid and development, intentions aside, necessarily complicates the idea of doing good.
The belief that “doing good” exists in a vacuum of power and free of values, has profound impacts on our interactions with host countries and communities. Without questioning the impact of our presence and work, the development industry can at times look suspiciously like that other grand intervention of the past: colonialism. For some, intentions, regardless of impact, are enough to justify the industry’s existence. The chaos of the Other, its rituals, its smiling in times of sorrow, its belief in the supernatural require correcting. The social implications of the aid and development industry in our work and practice, go unquestioned. We are protected, unquestioned, because our intentions are good. We are doing good.
But what of the impacts of intention? Teju Cole coined the term “White-Saviour Industrial Complex” in a series of tweets in response to the Kony 2012 sensation. He went on further to articulate his tweets in an article for the Atlantic that unpacked the spheres of power and influence that perpetuate the poverty and marginalization, which aid and development workers seek to correct. He questioned whether we can ensure that in wanting to make a difference, we can first do no harm. If we cannot question the role of international finance institutions, the foreign policy of our governments and our own privilege as aid and development workers, can we really get by on doing good with good intentions only?
Baludehan ó baruk, balukatak ó beik, kôlelemai. (Some say it is because you are lazy and stupid)
Baluraak ó baruk, balukatak ó tiak, kôlelemai.(Some say it is because you are lazy and poor)
Sásásámaka halo, se sese los se, kôlelemai. (What is the cause of it?)
Sásásámaka halo, se sese los se, kôlelemai. (Who is responsible?)
In 2013 the world saw one of the highest recorded numbers of aid worker fatalities. Victims were overwhelmingly local staff. In my own work, convincing donors to pay for health insurance for local staff draws mirthless laughter and the thick strike of a red pen in the budget. In my time in Timor-Leste, I have watched local staff suffer Dengue fever, Malaria, and broken limbs from riding motorbikes on washed out gravel roads in the districts. In these instances, staff have stepped in where donors should have, and pooled together their slim salaries to support their colleague with medical expenses. In the same year, my organization’s insurance company flew me home to Australia for a filling.
While local knowledge may mean local staff are exposed to more precarious circumstances than their international counterparts, this very same knowledge is at other times profoundly undervalued. Relationships, language, cultural and political competency are the soft skills in the hard game of compensating the labor of your local staff. In contrast, the technical expertise and knowledge are what the expat has and can offer. These are the skills of industrialization. The skills acquired from an education in a country that has and does benefit from the cricket people. Engineering, technology, science, planning, logistics. We are here to Build. Your. Capacity. As a Timorese colleague said to me, “How is it that I have all the local knowledge, the language, the contacts and I’m paid the least? Don’t my children need schooling too?”
Yet, I remain. Buoyed by the many examples I encounter that organize around the principles of social justice. The relationships, the observations, conversations with those who work in indigenous organisations that grew out of social movements. The local and international staff committed to challenging the established dynamics of power personally and professionally.The cricket people who speak back to the behemoth of development in ways that represent and protect their communities. This is development too. Development with justice. The type that puts the ignored body in the middle of the circle, complete with its mind.
*The lyrics in this article are from a popular resistance song in Timor-Leste titled “Kolele Mai Foho Ramelau”
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Palwesha Yusaf is a Pakistani Australian writer, photographer and development worker. She is currently based in Dili, Timor-Leste where she works for a local peace and research institute. Palwesha is interested in anti-oppressive social work, post-colonialism and applying feminist intersectionality in international development work. She spends much of her time sipping on coconuts with a furrowed brow trying to unpack the many contradictions in the world of international development. Some of these unpackings can be found on her blog Cyclingthethirdwave. She tweets @Shutterseed
This article was commissioned and edited by Sunili Govinnage
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